“He who seeks medicine and neglects his diet wastes the skill of his doctors.” – Chinese Proverb
A very common topic of discussion in my clinic is nutrition: Part of my health history intake is asking about the patient’s diet, and I very frequently make nutritional recommendations to assist their health goals.
In addition, I am often asked about what is the healthiest way to eat. It used to be mainly a weight-loss related question, but now it seems to also be people who are struggling with severe health problems such as cancer, auto-immune diseases and chronic degenerative diseases. I find it encouraging that people are starting to acknowledge the quality of their nutrition as a fundamental source of their health or disease.
Nutrition as Medicine
The quality of what we consume directly affects our state of health. Depending on what we choose to eat, our diets can be medicinal or harmful. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, knew this. He is famous for saying “Let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be food.”
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has also known this for centuries (actually millennia, to be more accurate).
In fact, of the Eight Branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine, nutrition is one of the most powerful, and certainly is the one that each of us has the most control over on a daily basis, since we all need to eat multiple times daily. Perhaps you’ve not thought of nutrition as medicine before now, but it is an important concept in TCM.
Healthy nutrition provides the foundational energy and substance which nourishes, heals and sustains our bodies in a state of vibrancy and health; poor diet depletes, harms and toxifies our bodies, causing myriad symptoms and diseases.
Just as the roots of a tree need to be healthy and strong so that they can provide optimal nutrition to the rest of the tree, we need to provide our organs and systems with optimal nutrition to heal and maintain our own strength and vitality. And, just as a house must be seated upon a strong foundation in order to have integrity, we need ensure our own foundation with sound nutrition.
Before delving into the deeper principles of health-promoting nutrition, we must first eliminate the fast food, junk food, preservatives, chemicals, and excess fats and sugars in our diets. We cannot help our bodies become and stay healthy if we are regularly eating these types of foods. It is essential to learn to read food labels, and stay away from products that contain ingredients that are not recognizable food names, and chemical-sounding names. Like Michael Pollan says, “If a 3rd grader can’t pronounce the ingredient, don’t eat it!”
The first, simplest and most profound piece of advice for building health through nutrition is to eat whole, unprocessed foods. Whole foods are those that are recognizable in their natural state: whole vegetables and fruits, such as apples, carrots, cucumbers and spinach; whole, unprocessed grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, corn and oats; whole cooked beans, whole nuts and seeds without oils or flavorings added.
Whole foods contain all types of vitamins, fiber, minerals, and health benefiting phytochemicals that number in the hundreds, or even thousands, that work synergistically to nourish us. Many of these compounds have been found by modern science to protect us from cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative diseases. Many others of these phytochemicals modern nutritional science hasn’t yet even identified! No one yet knows what other kinds of beneficial and vital properties they carry, or how they all work together synergistically to benefit our bodies.
It makes the most sense to give ourselves every advantage in the quest for excellent long-term health by consuming as much of the beneficial elements as we can in the foods we know are health-promoting. The best way to do this is by eating them in their whole-food form.
In addition to the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, the fiber in whole foods slows the absorption of glucose, which helps keep the blood sugar steady, preventing diabetes. It also provides volume to food, to satisfy the appetite without adding calories.
Fiber helps to prevent heart disease by binding cholesterol for excretion. It also absorbs toxins in the digestive tract, provides a mechanical means by which to sweep wastes out of the intestines (which decreases risk of colon cancer), provides bulk to the stool, and exercises the smooth muscle tissue in the intestinal walls to keep them toned and well functioning, preventing diverticulosis.
With all of the vital functions that dietary fiber has, it makes no sense to eat foods that are refined, which means the fiber (and most of the vitamins and minerals) has been removed.
Processed foods made with refined ingredients such as white flour, sugar, white rice, and oil, which include most breads, pretzels, chips, crackers, cakes, muffins, and pastries are not whole foods. Their base ingredients have been stripped of any nutritional value they once had, they have little or no fiber, and they add a lot of sugar, fat and chemicals that wreak havoc with our physical health and negatively impact our mental and emotional outlook (not to mention our waist lines.)
The ancient Chinese said that moderation is the key to good health. They were not referring to a moderation of junk foods, chemically-laden foods or processed foods, because these did not exist then. For the vast majority of our existence here on earth, humans only had access to whole foods, (which were organic, by the way) and yet the ancient Chinese still preached moderation. This is interesting to consider, since many Americans think a diet of whole foods (especially organic) is extreme.
So what were the ancient Chinese referring to by “moderation”? This will be discussed in Nutrition, Part 2 where we will focus on Nutritional Therapy in Oriental Medicine, based on the physiology of digestion from a Chinese Medicine point of view.
Dawn Potter, AP, Dipl.OM
excerpts published in Tampa Bay Wellness, April 2011